by Jonah Goldberg | December 4, 2015 12:04 am
“No more baby parts.”
As of this writing, that statement by Robert Lewis Dear is the only evidence that the “Planned Parenthood shooter” in Colorado Springs, Colo., was motivated by anti-abortion rhetoric.
Dear’s comment came amid a rambling interview that left law enforcement officials unsure what his motivations were.
That didn’t stop abortion-rights supporters, led by Planned Parenthood’s formidable PR operation, from placing the shooting at the feet of abortion opponents, including Republican presidential candidates and particularly the producers of the undercover videos about Planned Parenthood and the sale of fetal organs.
Pretty much the only things we know for sure are that three innocent people were killed and that Dear is, by most people’s standards, not right in the head.
Dear is a recluse fond of living off the grid — literally, as in without electricity — who apparently scared pretty much anyone he came in contact with. It is unlikely but not impossible that he was partly inspired by anti-abortion or anti-Obama rhetoric or by the undercover videos released by the Center for Medical Progress.
But let’s assume Dear was inspired by those videos. My sincere question is, “So what?”
I understand that many abortion-rights activists don’t want abortion rights to be up for debate, hence the effort to cast any opponents of unlimited abortion as not just wrong, but as anti-woman, anti-health and in some sense in league with someone like Dear: an alleged domestic terrorist.
But that’s not only ridiculous on the merits, it’s not how the First Amendment works.
I agree entirely that leaders of the pro-life movement and other social conservatives should condemn violence and do what they can, within reason, to discourage anyone from killing in their cause’s name.
That still leaves the problem of those outside reason. The guy who shot John Lennon was said to be inspired by “The Catcher in the Rye.” The Aurora, Colo., shooter who slaughtered a dozen people at a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” was not only obsessed with a particular Batman film series, he told police he was the Caped Crusader’s nemesis, The Joker. The Tucson, Ariz., shooter, a deeply mentally ill man, was obsessed with the lunatic conspiracy film “Zeitgeist.” The deranged Newtown, Conn., shooter loved video games.
The blame still resides with these killers. Millions of people love “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Dark Knight” movies and video games — and they don’t kill people, because normal folks aren’t inspired to murder by such things. But that misses the point. What if the killers’ actions could be blamed on those things? What if it were true that if Mark David Chapman had never read “The Catcher in the Rye,” he would never have shot Lennon? What’s the follow-through for that premise? Should we hold all speech — artistic and political — hostage to what sick or evil people might do? How would that work?
Not all mass killers fit the technical definitions of mental illness. But I would say that murder is by definition unreasonable; it follows that unreasonable people will find unreasonable excuses to kill.
As many conservatives have pointed out, Floyd Corkins, who attacked the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., in 2012, wanted to kill as many people as he could because he detested the organization’s opposition to gay marriage. Craig Stephens Hicks, an atheist who killed three Muslims in North Carolina in February, was supposedly a fan of Rachel Maddow and Bill Nye the Science Guy. It is just as grotesque to blame Maddow or Nye for those crimes as it is to try to smear the average abortion opponent with the Colorado shooting.
If Dear shot those people because he heard talk about Planned Parenthood’s traffic in “baby parts,” that doesn’t mean criticism of the organization’s traffic in baby parts is beyond the pale. After all, not even Planned Parenthood denies that the videos released by the Center for Medical Progress contained conversations about baby parts, though Planned Parenthood would obviously prefer not to use the word “baby.”
In criminal, civil and contract law, we have a reasonable person standard — how would a reasonable person react to a set of circumstances? Speech should be held to at least as generous a standard. If a car catches fire when it is driven one mile over the speed limit, a reasonable person would probably think the manufacturer was culpable. If a car is deliberately driven into a crowd, the driver, not the carmaker is to blame.
Which of these scenarios is closer to what happened in Colorado Springs?
(Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO.)
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